Travel Assistance
Visit your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.
Order travel materials online or use our online travel research tools.

Winter wonderlands
During the holidays, seek out these six Midwestern cities where you can shop, gaze at lights and enjoy the splendor of the season

Story by Sally M. Snell
Photos by Michael C. Snell

Published: Nov/Dec 2000

In addition to shopping for gifts along Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile and at the Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza, head to Navy Pier, where visitors can sit on Santa’s lap, take a carriage ride along Lake Michigan and go skating.
What makes a winter wonderland? Atmosphere. Seemingly unending solutions to gift lists. Comfort. Romance. Fire. An energy that feeds the soul, or a moment of calm that rejuvenates the body. These cities have all of that and more.

A trip to one of our winter wonderlands this holiday season will create a memory to cherish for years. You’ll probably want to bring family and friends. After all, you’ll need help carrying shopping bags.

Magnificent Chicago

Chicago in December is a frenetic mix of pleasures. Every shop along a stretch of North Michigan Avenue known as the Magnificent Mile whispers “yes” to Christmas wishes–large and small. Shoes, sweets, linens and electronics, perhaps with a day at a spa, the avenue glitters brightly with joyous wonder.
Hop on a holiday trolley and head to Navy Pier, for a jingley carriage ride along the lake, or a tour of the Gingerbread Fantasy Factory in the Chicago Children’s Museum. Lace up your ice skates and bundle up for a turn on the outdoor rink.

Chicago’s Christkindlmarket brings old world charm to Daley Plaza. Patterned after the Christmas market in Nuremburg that began in 1545, the Christkindlmarket offers more than 40 booths of European charm, including cuckoo clocks, blown glass ornaments, Ukrainian lacquered boxes, and nesting dolls, as well as traditional German and American food.

Dozens of hotels are along, or within easy walking distance of, North Michigan Avenue. Reserve a room well in advance of your trip to ensure availability, and ask the desk clerks to provide specific directions to their hotel from your highway to avoid struggles spotting street signs in heavy holiday traffic and dim winter light.

Hundreds of restaurants can be found in this area, so rely on the concierge for recommendations and reservations. To save time more time for shopping, eat meals at the hotel, and remember to pack a small bottle of water and some nuts or crackers for power shopping fuel.

Iowa charm

Step out of Chicago’s blustery lakefront cold, and into the warmth of Des Moine’s Kaleidoscope at The Hub. Visual artist Saley Nong will dress store windows within each shop of the downtown mall, reflecting the golden days of holiday window displays, and 30 life-size angels will be exhibited throughout the mall.

Many of the main buildings of downtown Des Moines have been connected with enclosed skywalks, enabling easy, climate-controlled shopping. The Des Moines Marriott is connected to the skywalk system, making visits comfortable and convenient. A short walk away, the Hotel Fort Des Moines is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has the charm of a European hostelry.

Historic Valley Junction offers more 130 antique and specialty stores along an early 1900s-era street. On Nov. 16 and 30 from 5–9 p.m., Valley Junction will celebrate with an open house. Visitors can expect horse and carriage rides, street vendors selling roasted nuts, kettlecorn, and hot chocolate and carolers.

The holidays begin with a bang during Fire in the Sky 2000, comprising both a Christmas fireworks display and stage show on Court Avenue, the evening of Dec. 1.

Kansas City lights the way

The streets of Kansas City’s shopping mecca known as Country Club Plaza are bathed in the warmth of thousands of holiday lights, and shops and restaurants filled with good cheer. The blending of variety and high-quality merchandise, as close as a casual stroll or carriage ride, make the Plaza a favorite place to shop in Kansas City. Attending the annual post-Thanksgiving lighting ceremony is a family tradition for many.

For gifts with a personal touch visit All Fired Up in Overland Park, a “paint your own pottery” store where shoppers of all skill levels create special mementos for their own home–or grandma’s.

Elegance and romance is only a stay away at Southmoreland on the Plaza. Guests are often greeted with the sweet aroma of cookies or home-baked bread. The innkeepers keep a stock of menus on-hand, and can give recommendations on restaurants around the Plaza. After a hearty meal, pile the packages in a corner and relax with a glass of sherry in front of a crackling fire.

Michael’s Grill may be Kansas City’s best kept secret. The chef has a special flare with beef and seafood, and the home-baked rolls are not to be missed.

Consider taking a trolley to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, or the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

Wilderness experience in Indy

You can find plenty of gifts for the nature lovers on your Christmas list with a visit to Lake & Lodge Outfitters in Indianapolis.
Shop in the back-country of the mind at Indianapolis’ Lake & Lodge Outfitters, where nature lovers with a penchant for the exotic are satisfied, whether it be for a bamboo bicycle, canoe paddles fresh from the waters of the Amazon, or anything with antlers.

Hidden behind the walls of the downtown Indianapolis Wholesale District, is Circle Centre. Brimming with department, specialty stores and restaurants, and connected to the surrounding buildings with enclosed skywalks, the mall is Indianapolis’ one-stop shopping destination. Special treats for holiday visitors include music programs within the skywalk Artsgarden, where shoppers sit down with a cup of hot chocolate, enjoy the music and watch the holiday traffic pass below.

Several national hotels are within walking distance of Circle Centre.

Children have their own very special store in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where gift and personal items are child-priced. The museum was ranked as the top museum in the Midwest in a national public poll.

Indianapolis has earned a reputation for restaurants where the atmosphere is as important as the cuisine. The Loon Lake Lodge is a mountain wilderness experience in dining. Tired kids perk up as the animated wildlife cycles to life from their tree-branch perches. Adults will appreciate the Art Deco splendor of Dunaway’s, situated in the historic Oxygen Building. No matter where you dine, devote additional time to savor every bite and every moment.

Meet me in St. Louis

Once the hub of rail travel in St. Louis, now Union Station welcomes shoppers, straddling the line between small specialty stores and national favorites. Enjoy the atmosphere of this grand railway station decked out for the holidays, and take a self-guided tour of exhibits detailing great moments in rail history. Afterward, stop at Landry’s in Union Station for seafood and pasta with southern flair.

Guests choose the Hyatt Regency Union Station for its elegance and historic flavor. For a more moderately-priced room, the Drury Inn St. Louis-Union Station is across the street.

Getting around in St. Louis is made easier with MetroLink, the light rail transit, which connects the airport to downtown.

Rendezvous in St. Charles

Along the northernwestern limits of St. Louis, the Main Street of Historic St. Charles flings off the trappings of 20th century life. With cobbled streets and restored historic buildings, St. Charles retains the atmosphere of its early years as a riverfront trading center where thousands replenished supplies on their journeys westward. It was where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rendezvoused for their famous expedition in 1803.

During the holidays, you can stroll the luminaria-lined streets among town criers and carolers, and visit Santa from the ages. Charming shops–many of which are located in buildings that date to the 1800s–welcome visitors searching for unique crafts, antiques and furniture.

Much of the character of St. Charles is displayed during Las Posadas, held the first Saturday in December, when they re-enact Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem. To avoid the crowds, visit during a weekday.

These six Midwestern cities have what it takes for great holiday shopping. But no matter where you go, take time to enjoy the company you are with, and the moment you are in.

Sally M. Snell is a contributor from Topeka, Kan.

Before you go

Before your holiday getaway, stop by your nearest full-service AAA office to pick up maps, TripTiks and TourBooks. AAA can make your hotel and car rental reservations.

For more information

• Chicago Office of Tourism; 1-800-2CONNECT (1-800-226-6632);
Christkindlmarket is at Daley Plaza Nov. 23–Dec. 20, from 11 a.m.–8 p.m.

Des Moines
• Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau; 1-800-451-2625;
Fire in the Sky is in the Des Moines Downtown Court Avenue Friday Dec. 1.
Valley Junction Open House is Nov. 16 and Nov. 30 from 5–9 p.m. each night.

Kansas City
• Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City; 1-800-767-7700; (816) 221-5242;

• Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association; 1-800-323-INDY; (317) 639-4282;

St. Louis area
• St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission; 1-800-916-0040;
• Historic St. Charles; 1-800-366-2427;

Contents may not be reproduced in whole or in part unless expressly authorized in writing by AAA Traveler Magazines.